Elizabeth Miller Watkins

Lady Bountiful: Biography

A garden gate intentionally left ajar speaks volumes about the woman who many in Lawrence referred to as "Lady Bountiful." From the spacious sunporch of The Outlook, her grand home on Lilac Lane, Elizabeth Josephine Miller Watkins would spend many mornings and afternoons watching KU students trudge up the hill to their classes. If they could cut through her yard, she thought, their journey would be easier. So she always left her gates open so they could do so and she waved and smiled as they passed by. Many students walking past the "Big White House" probably thought little of its mistress and most likely never stopped to realize that the open gate was her simple gesture of encouragement, her way of showing concern for their education and trying to help in any way she could.

  Dwelling all those years right here in Mount Oread, at the very gates of the campus, her sympathies went out to those young men and women she saw struggling so bravely at the threshold of life for an education that could make their lives nobler and more useful.
        - Chancellor Ernest Lindley

An unconventional life and woman

Then as now, Elizabeth was an anomaly and more than a little unconventional. In the late 1800s, she was among the first of her generation to work outside the home in a white-collar job. Not only did Elizabeth enter the workforce as a teenager, she continued her business career into her 70s, and managed assets worth millions of dollars.

If Lawrence citizens thought her an exceptional woman—and she certainly was—they also certainly saw her as a striking, sometimes scandalous, exception to traditional womanhood.

At a time when respectable, unmarried women wouldn't think about traveling without a chaperone, Elizabeth traveled extensively either alone or with her employer—a man 16 years her senior. When middle-class women were expected to become wives and mothers, she remained single until the age of 47 and never had children. And though she never earned a high school diploma, she believed deeply in education for women and devotedly supported KU.

She may have earned only $50 a month as a secretary, yet in her lifetime she gave away a fortune, earning her the well-deserved title Lady Bountiful. And although her name graces several buildings at KU and in Lawrence—Watkins Hall, Miller Hall, Watkins Health Center, and the Watkins Community Museum of History (Watkins Museum), few people today can tell you much about "Lizzie Jo" Miller.

Go west young woman

"Lizzie Jo" Miller, as her family called her, was born on January 21, 1861, in New Paris, OH, to Dr. Valentine and Ella Gardner Miller. When Lizzie was 11, her father, a Union Army surgeon in the Civil War, moved his family to Lawrence in 1872 to set up a medical practice. "They came to Kansas at a time when money was a luxury," Lawrence Journal World Editor W.C. Simons wrote. "The farmers struggled against poor crops, grasshoppers and what not. The doctor was almost the last man to be paid. But regardless of pay, Dr. Miller answered every call."

As a young girl, young Elizabeth looked up to University Hall—later known as Old Fraser—and dreamed of the day when she would attend classes there. At age 14 Lizzie enrolled in KU Preparatory School in 1874, however, hard times for her father's medical practice forced Lizzie to drop out of school to help support her family. Not only did she never finish high school but the family's hard times also effectively slammed shut the gate on her college dreams.

Although Lizzie hoped to pursue an art career in New York City, in 1875 she took an office clerk job with her first and only employer, J. B. Watkins Land and Mortgage Company. The company's namesake, Jabez Bunting (J.B.) Watkins, worked his way through the University of Michigan to get a law degree. Starting with just a few hundred dollars J.B. set up a real estate and loan business. Within 10 years he incorporated the company in Lawrence and secured enough money from eastern and foreign investors to establish branches in Dallas, New York, London and Lake Charles, LA. The company solicited funds from the East to lend to farmers in the Midwest. From 1873-93, J.B. obtained about 2,500 Kansas farms through foreclosure, which represented 10-20 percent of all the loans made to farmers. 

In the 1880s, J.B. purchased nearly 1.5 million acres of land in Louisiana and built railroads throughout the state. He also founded a number of banks, including the Watkins National Bank. Watkins Museum Interim Director Mike Wildgen called J.B. the "Bill Gates of the 1880s."

In 1888, J.B. moved his empire into a new building at the corner of 11th and Massachusetts in Lawrence. The new building took several years to construct and was considered one of the most magnificent buildings west of the Mississippi River. Elizabeth worked on the third floor where the Land and Mortgage Company was located and where conveniently J.B. had a small apartment tucked away in the sub-attic. The bank occupied the second floor while the first floor was used as an office for lawyers and civic groups. 

As J.B.'s Land and Mortgage Company empire continued to grow, so did Elizabeth's responsibilities and stature in the company. She eventually became J.B.'s private secretary as well as assistant secretary of the company, assuming many of its administrative responsibilities. Her natural abilities and instincts for finance made Elizabeth an invaluable employee and she played no small part in the growth of the Watkins business.

Going to the chapel and we're going to get married

In 1909, after Elizabeth had worked more than 30 years for J.B., she married her 63-year old boss, in Brooklyn, NY. The bride was 47 years old and by then the groom was considered one of the richest men in the West.

The Lawrence Journal World reported the following about the wedding:

"Word has reached Lawrence today from New York of the marriage there last week of Miss Lizzie Miller and Mr. J. B. Watkins, both of this city. This announcement is the most startling that has been made in Lawrence in several years, for no one in Lawrence had any idea that the wedding was to take place."

However, according to Steve Jenson, former director of the Watkins Museum, the Lawrence community should not have been so surprised that Elizabeth and J.B. tied the knot.

  We believe they were romantically involved for a lot of the time she was his secretary. She accompanied him on long business trips, which would not have been looked upon favorably in that day. He even took out life insurance policies on her and provided for her in his will before their marriage.

The mystery for Jensen was not that Elizabeth and J.B. wed, but rather what took them so long. Originally, Jensen thought J.B. kept Elizabeth waiting. "Now we think that it may have been [Elizabeth] who put it off," he analyzes. "Her parents were strict prohibitionists, and J.B. drank heavily. . . [C]oincidentally, her mother died in 1909, and they were married not long afterward."

Their marriage may have been a source of scandal in Lawrence and Elizabeth "was never really accepted despite her wealth," said Charles Stough, a friend of one of Mrs. Watkins' student chauffeurs. "Socially, she was not invited to things and was shut-out of social circles. She was a rather lonely person." Sadly, even though Elizabeth had over 100 bequests in her will, Stough said no one ever saw Elizabeth riding in the limousine with her. Although folklore says she often told her driver to stop for weary pedestrians. 

What Jensen found remarkable was that Elizabeth was able to "rise above her experiences of being snubbed." He also suggested that J.B. may have been snubbed too because he was a Democrat and "in this town you were a Republican." Elizabeth also was a staunch Democrat.

Jensen said that Elizabeth may have gone out of her way to show those people. Stough surmises that being scorned may have pushed Elizabeth to make her extensive donations to KU and the community. "I expect she went out of her way to show those people," Stough said, "And she sure did – she was able to immortalize her family."

26 rooms with a view

Three years after they married, Elizabeth and J.B. built a mansion at the end of Lilac Lane on land that the couple purchased from former Governor Charles Robinson, the state's first governor who was instrumental in bringing Kansas into the Union as a free state. They called their new home The Outlook because of its breathtaking view of the Wakarusa Valley. 

The three-story Neo-Classical Revival mansion boasted 26 rooms, 7 fireplaces, 17 closets, porches and verandas on every side of the home, and more than 6,000 square feet of living space. With its distinctive green clay-tile roof, white stucco walls, Ionic portico and wrap-around porches, the style of the mansion was referred to as "Prairie Newport." The Watkins furnished their new home with beautiful pieces, which the July 28, 1939 University Daily Kansan said made the mansion "one of Kansas' most luxurious and best equipped mansions." 

Although Elizabeth and J.B. often talked about how they would spend their "twilight years," the couple only lived together at The Outlook for nine years when J.B. died in 1921 at age 76. Mrs. Watkins told the Kansas City Star, "We planned many things, but my husband died before our plans were all made." Mrs. Watkins continued to live there until her death.

Over the years, Mrs. Watkins entertained many notable guests at The Outlook, but none more famous than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938, the year before Mrs. Watkins died, the First Lady came for tea and also toured Watkins Hall. 

As Elizabeth and J.B. intended, after Mrs. Watkins died in June 1939, The Outlook became the new permanent home of the Chancellor. Her will even made a $5,000 grant to furnish the Chancellor's new home. Following rushed renovations, Chancellor Deane W. Malott and his family moved into the mansion at the start of classes that fall, whereupon he locked the gates that Mrs. Watkins had left open to make students' educational journey a little easier. (Interestingly, the former residence of the Chancellor at 1345 Louisiana Street became the first men's scholarship hall when Malott moved into The Outlook.) 

Hand up not handout

When J.B. died Elizabeth inherited an estate valued at $2.4 million. J.B.'s estate included seven corporations, 200 Kansas corporations, more than 200 Kansas farms that the Watkins Land and Mortgage Company had acquired through foreclosures, and about 100,000 acres of land in Texas and Louisiana. Clearly, she was a wealthy widow.

For years, J.B. and Elizabeth had privately provided hundreds of students with financial assistance to attend KU. In addition, every year Mrs. Watkins hired KU students to chauffeur her long 16-cylinder Cadillac sedan. The Watkins did not believe in giving "handouts," but in offering a "hand up." Their approach to giving mirrored that of Andrew Carnegie: help others not by giving them a handout but by giving them the opportunities to improve themselves.

For those who must travel up-hill

Soon after J.B.'s death Mrs. Watkins formalized her philanthropy by offering her first "hand up" to KU to fund a unique project of her own conception. On July 1, 1925, she donated $75,000 to build Watkins Scholarship Hall, the first cooperative arrangement for women students in the nation, which opened its doors on September 14, 1926. She also donated the land on Lilac Lane on which the hall was built. The novel approach that she designed for Watkins Hall was to help bright, but financially needy, young women attend college by having the women who lived there do all their own cooking and housework, thereby reducing their living costs to $27 a year plus food. Then, Mrs. Watkins established a scholarship to cover most of the rest of the costs.

About her project, Mrs. Watkins said:

My sympathy has always been with the girls who must travel up-hill. My husband and I had intended to do something that would really be beneficial of them. It has been my dream to aid self-supporting girls to get an education.

Mrs. Watkins totally immersed herself in every aspect of making Watkins Hall a reality. "The color scheme of every room, the furniture, draperies and furnishings, are results of many months of planning," Mrs. Watkins is quoted in the KU History webpage story "For the 'Girls Who Must Travel Up-hill'" as saying. "I have never done anything into which I have put more of myself. It is my dream come true." Her attention to detail was amazing. She even ensured that the halls provided the new residents everything from table linens to sheets and blankets.

The KU History Website also reported that Mrs. Watkins was "a stickler for details going forward." They reported that she personally selected Watkins Hall's first housemother, Mrs. R.C. Morrow, and paid her salary. Mrs. Watkins continued paying the Watkins housemothers until her death. In addition, under formal agreement with KU, when a new housemother was needed Mrs. Watkins reserved the right to provide a list of nominees from which KU would have to select. 

Mrs. Watkins also applied her business sense to ensure that Watkins Hall continued to serve the girls who must travel up-hill. Under her agreement with KU, she maintained the right to take back the property if "at any time [it is] diverted to uses other than those [originally] specified." The first residents of Watkins seemed to inherit Mrs. Watkins' business acumen. The Kansas City Star reported that the seven kitchen heads at Watkins would get together and make a list of all the food they would need for the month and then invite local wholesalers to bid against each other to furnish the supplies (2/24/1935). 

Once Watkins Hall opened, it quickly became a phenomenon in the collegiate residence world, the KU History webpage reported. In the mid-1930s, delegations from all over the country came to study the hall, saying that there was nothing like it at any other college. During the same time, interest in Watkins Hall at KU also grew.

Miller Time

The growing interest of women in becoming a "Watkins woman," in part, prompted Mrs. Watkins to donate another $75,000 to build an identical twin next door to Watkins. Mrs. Watkins named the second hall to honor her brother Frank C. Miller, a Salina, KS, banker. Frank had attended KU briefly in the 1880s. When he died in his 40s in 1919, he left $50,000 to the KU student loan fund. 

Like the attention she gave to the construction of Watkins Hall, Mrs. Watkins again involved herself in every detail of building Miller Hall. The KU History webpage said that she was involved in everything from the interior layout to personally selecting the china pattern the new residents would use. 

Not only did Mrs. Watkins take great interest in the walls that formed Watkins and Miller, she also took great pleasure in its residents. When Julie Mettenburg (Watkins 1987-91) was a student at KU, she interviewed several early Watkins residents who lived in the hall while Mrs. Watkins was still alive. Harriett Dyer, a Lawrence native who graduated in 1929, described Mrs. Watkins as "dignified," "kindness clear through" and "interested in education." "She was like a queen with her kindness and really down-to-earth," Harriett added. Veda Gibson, 1934 KU graduate found Mrs. Watkins "austere but friendly." 

Verda Shields, a 1936 KU graduate, and Philomene (Bourassa) Hood (Watkins 1935-39) both remember Mrs. Watkins holding tea every year to meet new Watkins residents. In an anonymous Oral History, another Watkins alumna (Watkins 1938-42) remembered attending the annual tea the year before Mrs. Watkins died. "Going to tea at the 'Big White House,' which we called her home, was a challenge to dress up as best we could – putting on hose, our best Sunday dress, coiffing our hair and practicing our best manners." Mrs. Watkins also regularly invited women faculty for tea. The July 1937 Graduate Magazine said that when Watkins residents made meals they typically set an extra place for Mrs. Watkins, just in case she dropped in, which she apparently did from time to time.

The Great Depression

After the stock market crashed in 1929, Elizabeth showed herself to be an astute business woman. During the Depression she managed both to retain the $2.4 million value of the estate she inherited and to continue her generous gift-giving. A year before the crash, Mrs. Watkins had given the City of Lawrence $200,000 to build a new hospital, which opened one month before Black Monday. Interestingly, five days after the hospital opened, the first baby was born there and named Elizabeth in honor of Mrs. Watkins.

In 1929, she donated the Watkins Building to the City of Lawrence. The next year, she gave KU $175,000 to construct, fully furnish and maintain a 46-bed student health facility equipped with full-time staff, examination rooms, an operating room and pharmacy. Up until her gift, on-campus health care had been makeshift at best, changing locations five times over two decades and proving to be inadequate during the influenza epidemics of 1918 and 1928. As with her earlier projects, Mrs. Watkins helped to devise the interior design of the new hospital. She personally selected the wood furnishings for patients' rooms and common area with a design toward creating an environment that would be a far cry from the stark, sterile white of many hospitals. 

The hospital started seeing its first patients in January 1932, but was not dedicated until commencement on June 5. Mrs. Watkins told the commencement assembly that the hospital was the embodiment of her "desire to contribute to your welfare. I feel that the future success and happiness of yourselves, as well as the future prosperity of this state, depends to a considerable extent on the proper care of your health." In 1937, to provide a nice living space for the Watkins Hospital nurses, Mrs. Watkins gave $41,000 to construct the Watkins Nurses Home.


One of Elizabeth's scrapbooks reveals the highest of standards she set for herself. Pasted into the front page is an excerpt from a Methodist hymn "My Creed." Above the following excerpt she wrote, "My Creed, Also":

I will be true for there are those who trust me.
I will be pure for there are those who care.
I will be strong for there is much to suffer.
I will be brave for there is much to dare.
I will be a friend to all, to foe, to friendless.
I will be giving and forget the gift.
I will be humble, for I know my weakness.
I will look up and love and laugh and lift.

Caring, daring, strong, giving and loving – they describe Elizabeth Miller Watkins perfectly. Through her generous gifts, Mrs. Watkins assisted those who were needy, encouraged those who were most promising, and cared for those who were sick, all the while keeping a close watch over her surrogate children from her front porch. With her daily waves, smiles, and open gates she let them know how closely she held them in her heart.

This biography of Elizabeth Miller Watkins was derived from several sources, including a wonderful article in 1989 by Julie Mettenburg (Watkins 1987-91) for the EMW Memorial Scholarship Application and a 1998 article by KU graduate Judith Galas on the Lawrence History webpage. Information was also gathered from articles on the KU History and Watkins Community Museum of History websites.

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